When Urban Pollinator Gardens Meet Native Plant Communities

Public concern about the state of bees and other pollinating insects has led to increased interest in pollinator gardens. Planting a pollinator garden is often promoted as an excellent way for the average person to help protect pollinators. And it is! However, as with anything in life, there can be downsides.

In many urban areas, populations of native plants remain on undeveloped or abandoned land, in parks or reserves, or simply as part of the developed landscape. Urban areas may also share borders with natural areas, the edges of which are particularly prone to invasions by non-native plants. Due to human activity and habitat fragmentation, many native plant populations are now threatened. Urban areas are home to the last remaining populations of some of these plants.

Concern for native plant populations in and around urban areas prompted researchers at University of Pittsburgh to review some of the impacts that urban pollinator gardens may have and to develop a “roadmap for research” going forward. Their report was published earlier this year in New Phytologist.

Planting a wildflower seed mix is a simple way to establish a pollinator garden, and such mixes are sold commercially for this purpose. Governmental and non-governmental organizations also issue recommendations for wildflower, pollinator, or meadow seed mixes. With this in mind, the researchers selected 30 seed mixes “targeted for urban settings in the northeastern or mid-Atlantic USA” to determine what species are being recommended for or commonly planted in pollinator gardens in this region. They also developed a “species impact index” to assess “the likelihood a species would impact remnant wild urban plant populations.”

A total of 230 species were represented in the 30 seed mixes. The researchers selected the 45 most common species for evaluation. Most of these species (75%) have generalized pollination systems, suggesting that there is potential for sharing pollinators with remnant native plants. Two-thirds of the species had native ranges that overlapped with the targeted region; however, the remaining one-third originated from Europe or western North America. The native species all had “generalized pollination systems, strong dispersal and colonization ability, and broad environmental tolerances,” all traits that could have “high impacts” either directly or indirectly on remnant native plants. Other species were found to have either high dispersal ability but low chance of survival or low dispersal ability but high chance of survival.

This led the researchers to conclude that “the majority of planted wildflower species have a high potential to interact with native species via pollinators but also have the ability to disperse and survive outside of the garden.” Sharing pollinators is especially likely due to super-generalists like the honeybee, which “utilizes flowers from many habitat types.” Considering this, the researchers outlined “four pollinator-mediated interactions that can affect remnant native plants and their communities,” including how these interactions can be exacerbated when wildflower species escape gardens and invade remnant plant communities.

photo credit: wikimedia commons

The first interaction involves the quantity of pollinator visits. The concern is that native plants may be “outcompeted for pollinators” due to the “dense, high-resource displays” of pollinator gardens. Whether pollinator visits will increase or decrease depends on many things, including the location of the gardens and their proximity to native plant communities. Pollinator sharing between the two has been observed; however, “the consequences of this for effective pollination of natives are not yet understood.”

The second interaction involves the quality of pollinator visits. Because pollinators are shared between native plant communities and pollinator gardens, there is a risk that the pollen from one species will be transferred to another species. High quantities of this “heterospecific pollen” can result in reduced seed production. “Low-quality pollination in terms of heterospecific pollen from wildflower plantings may be especially detrimental for wild remnant species.”

The third interaction involves gene flow between pollinator gardens and native plant communities. Pollen that is transferred from closely related species (or even individuals of the same species but from a different location) can have undesired consequences. In some cases, it can increase genetic variation and help address problems associated with inbreeding depression. In other cases, it can introduce traits that are detrimental to native plant populations, particularly traits that disrupt adaptations that are beneficial to surviving in urban environments, like seed dispersal and flowering time. Whether gene flow between the two groups will be positive or negative is difficult to predict, and “the likelihood of genetic extinction versus genetic rescue will depend on remnant population size, genetic diversity, and degree of urban adaptation relative to the planted wildflowers.”

The fourth interaction involves pathogen transmission via shared pollinators. “Both bacterial and viral pathogens can be transmitted via pollen, and bacterial pathogens can be passed from one pollinator to another.” In this way, pollinators can act as “hubs for pathogen exchange,” which is especially concerning when the diseases being transmitted are ones for which the native plants have not adapted defenses.

photo credit: wikimedia commons

All of these interactions become more direct once wildflowers escape gardens and establish themselves among the native plants. And because the species in wildflower seed mixes are selected for their tolerance of urban conditions, “they may be particularly strong competitors with wild remnant populations,” outcompeting them for space and resources. On the other hand, the authors note that, depending on the species, they may also “provide biotic resistance to more noxious invaders.”

All of these interactions require further investigation. In their conclusion, the authors affirm, “While there is a clear potential for positive effects of urban wildflower plantings on remnant plant biodiversity, there is also a strong likelihood for unintended consequences.” They then suggest future research topics that will help us answer many of these questions. In the meantime, pollinator gardens should not be discouraged, but the plants (and their origins) should be carefully considered. One place to start is with wildflower seed mixes, which can be ‘fine-tuned’ so that they benefit our urban pollinators as well as our remnant native plants. Read more about plant selection for pollinators here.

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Year of Pollination: Hellstrip Pollinator Garden

This month I have been reading and reviewing Evelyn Hadden’s book, Hellstrip Gardening, and I have arrived at the fourth and final section, “Curbside-Worthy Plants.” As the title suggests, this section is a list of plants that Hadden has deemed worthy of appearing in a curbside garden. It’s not exhaustive, of course, but with over 100 plants, it’s a great start. Photos and short descriptions accompany each plant name, and the plants are organized into four groups: showy flowers, showy foliage, culinary and medicinal use, and four-season structure.

This list is useful and fun to read through, but there isn’t much more to say about it beyond that. So I have decided to write this month’s Year of Pollination post about creating a hellstrip pollinator garden using some of the plants on Hadden’s list. Last year around this time I wrote about planting for pollinators where I listed some basic tips for creating a pollinator garden in your yard. It’s a fairly simple endeavor – choose a sunny location, plant a variety of flowering plants that bloom throughout the season, and provide nesting sites and a water source. If this sounds like something you would like to do with your hellstrip, consider planting some of the following plants.

Spring Flowers

Spring flowering plants are an important food source for pollinators as they emerge from hibernation and prepare to reproduce. There are several spring flowering trees and shrubs on Hadden’s list. Here are three of them:

  • Amelanchier laevis (Allegheny serviceberry) – A multi-trunked tree or large shrub that flowers early in the spring. Other small trees or shrubs in the genus Amelanchier may also be suitable.
  • Cercis canadensis (eastern redbud) – A small tree that is covered in tiny, vibrant, purple-pink flowers in early spring.
  • Ribes odoratum (clove currant) – A medium sized shrub that flowers in late spring. Try other species of Ribes as well, including one of my favorites, Ribes cereum (wax currant).

There aren’t many spring flowering herbaceous plants on Hadden’s list, but two that stood out to me are Amsonia hubrichtii (bluestar) and Polemonium reptans (creeping Jacob’s ladder).

Creeping Jacob's ladder (Polemonium reptens) is native to eastern North America and attracts native bees with its mid-spring flowers. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Creeping Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptens) is native to eastern North America and attracts native bees with its mid-spring flowers. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Summer Flowers

There is no shortage of summer flowering plants, and Hadden’s list reflects that. When planting a pollinator garden, be sure to include flowers of different shapes, sizes, and colors in order to attract the greatest diversity of pollinators. Here are a few of my favorite summer flowering plants from Hadden’s list:

  • Amorpha canescens (leadplant) – A “good bee plant” and also a nitrogen fixer.
  • Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed) – “Valuable pollinator plant and larval host for monarch, gray hairstreak, and queen butterflies.” I love the tight clusters of deep orange flowers on this plant.
  • Coreopsis verticillata (threadleaf coreopsis) – I really like coreopsis (also known as tickseed). Try other species in the genus as well.
  • Penstemon pinifolius (pineleaf penstemon) – North America is bursting with penstemon species, especially the western states. All are great pollinator plants. Pineleaf penstemon is widely available and great for attracting hummingbirds.
  • Salvia pachyphylla (Mojave sage) – A very drought-tolerant plant with beautiful pink to purple to blue inflorescences. Salvia is another genus with lots of species to choose from.
  • Scutellaria suffratescens  (cherry skullcap) – A good ground cover plant with red-pink flowers that occur from late spring into the fall.
The flowers of butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). Milkweed species (Asclepias spp.) are essential to monarch butterflies as they are the sole host plant of their larvae.

The flowers of butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). Milkweed species (Asclepias spp.) are essential to the survival of monarch butterflies as they are the sole host plant of their larvae.

Fall Flowers

Fall flowering plants are essential to pollinators as they prepare to migrate and/or hibernate. Many of the plants on Hadden’s list start flowering in the summer and continue into the fall. A few are late summer/fall bloomers. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Epilobium canum (California fuchsia) – “Profuse orange-red tubular flowers late summer into fall furnish late-season nectar, fueling hummingbird migration.”
  • Liatris punctata (dotted blazing star) – Drought-tolerant plant with tall spikes of purple-pink flowers. “Nectar fuels migrating monarchs.”
  • Symphyotrichum oblongifolium (aromatic aster) – Loaded with lavender-blue flowers in the fall. It’s a spreading plant, so prune it back to keep it in check. Hadden recommends it for sloped beds.
  • Agastache rupestris (sunset hyssop) – Spikes of “small tubular flowers in sunset hues attract hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees midsummer to fall.” Try other species in the Agastache genus as well.
  • Monarda fistulosa (wild bergamot) – The unique flower heads are like magnets to a wide variety of pollinators. Also consider other Monarda species.
Lemon beebalm (Monarda citriodora), an annual plant that attracts an array of pollinators.

Lemon beebalm (Monarda citriodora), an annual plant that attracts an array of pollinators.

As with any other garden, your hardiness zone, soil conditions, water availability, and other environmental factors must be considered when selecting plants for your hellstrip pollinator garden. Groups like Pollinator Partnership and The Xerces Society have guides that will help you select pollinator friendly plants that are suitable for your region. Additionally, two plans for “boulevard pollinator gardens” complete with plant lists are included in the book Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm – one plan is for sunny and dry spots and the other is for shady and wet spots (pgs. 268-269). Once your pollinator garden is complete, consider getting it certified as a pollinator friendly habitat. There are various organizations that do this, such as the Environmental Education Alliance of Georgia. If you are interested in such a thing, the public nature of your hellstrip garden makes it an ideal place to install a sign (like the one sold in The Xerces Society store) announcing your pollinator garden and educating passersby about the importance of pollinator conservation.

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